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The ambiguities of Labour-Power in Marx’s Capital

On first sight, Labour-Power appears as  simple concept. Marx defines it as “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities exisiting in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind”. That is, it would appear that Labour-power exists as a physical capability of humans as such, and is therefore either a transhistorical category which is situated within specific historical forms, or is a naturalistic or ontological category existing outside of history as human potentiality for labour as such. As Marx goes on to note, labour-power exists “only as a capacity of the living individual”, and this seems to give further evidence of labour-power as naturalistic or transhistorical potentiality. The living individual is not a historical category but rather is the basis for all forms of labour. Paolo Virno, in Grammar of the Multitude, furthers this reading of labour-power as naturalistic or ontological category by situating it as the basis of bio-politics. Labour-Power, for Virno, “incarnates…a fundamental category of philosophical thought: specifically the potential, the dynamis.” (pp.82). The potential is the not-yet-actual, it does not, and cannot, as potential, have an existence autonomous from the life of the worker, and therefore in its specifical historical form as a commodity, labour-power’s sale on the market involves a selling of the life of the worker. It is, then, a potentiality which stands above the historical form which subsumes it as a commodity.

Yet, to return to the text of Capital, labour-power is not simply potentiality existing within the living body of the worker, but it is a commodity of a peculiar nature. As with all commodities, labour-power has a dual form, as use-value and value. As a use-value it is not the potentiality that the capitalist purchases but rather the actual material labour of the worker for a fixed amount of time. Once labour-power is sold on the market, the worker is forced to descend into the hidden abode of production. The peculiarity of the commodity labour-power comes from its status as the only commodity whose use-value is not exhausted in its consumption, in fact, it produces more exchange-values than it costs to purchase. The fortuitous event of the capitalist finding a commodity on the market whose use-value is the source of value, and the source of the increase in value between M-C-M’, is not a natural phenomena, but rather presupposes capitalist social relations. As Marx states, the seller of labour-power must be free in the dual sense that, firstly, they must be free of the means of production (in which they could produce use-values themselves to satisfy their own needs), and secondly  they are free in the juridical sense of being the free owners of a commodity on the market. This dual freedom is produced through the process of primitive accumulation as the seperation of producers from the means of production. Primitive accumulation here is not simply a historical phenomena that is temporally prior to capitalism as its basis, but rather the constantly renewing of the separation of worker from the means of production that brings them to market once more with nothing to sell but their labour-power.

As value, labour-power is exchangeable for any other commodity on the market. It’s value is determined like every other commodity, i.e. through the time socially necessary for its production (and in the case of labour-power, also its re-production). The extent of the requirements for the production and re-production of labour-power is historically determined, or as Marx states, it contains a “historical and moral element”. It’s value is therefore malleable, changing with historical, social and geographical alterations. Its value is determined by both the expectations of the worker and of the capitalist. It is the site of a struggle between the worker, who will constantly wish to increase the amount gained for a specific amount of labour, and the capitalist, who in the endless search for increased surplus-value, wishes to decrease the amount paid for labour-power. What is interesting here is the temporal determinates of this. As Wolfgang Haug notes, the commodity form implies a specific use-value promise (for Haug it is the promise of the use-value that compels the act of exchange), and with this there is a temporal gap between production and exchange. The commodity of labour-power is no different. The seller of the commodity is offering for sale not a potentiality then, but rather the promise of the fulfilment of a use-value promise, that is, the specific act of labouring. The worker, as personified labour-power confronts the capitalist as personified capital on the market. For the Capitalist this promise is inherently futural in that it involves an expectation of an increase in value through its consumption, its function for the capitalist is utopian in the sense that the expectations placed upon it by the capitalist is one of endless future growth. Yet, the determination of the value of labour-power is also set by the seller of the commodity, who determines its value through certain expectations and habits historically and socially acquired. Temporally, this involves taking certain features from the past and the expectations for their constant futural renewal. This is the manifestation of a contradiction within this commodity, expressed temporally, between the buyer and the seller and the expectations each has for the outcome of the transaction.

Yet, the question remains of the textual ambiguity between the initial definition of labour-power as the mental and physical capability to produce any use-value, and its later definition as a commodity. There seems to be an unbridgeable chasm between the trashistorical dimension which is subsumed under historico-economic forms and it as a historical form itself as a commodity. What I would like to argue is that this ambiguity is not simply one in the text of Capital itself but rather a feature of the specifically capitalist production of commodities which is highlighted by Marx.

Humans worked before, and will continue to after, capitalism, yet, as Alfred Schmidt points out, for Marx “history itself projects into the physiological structure of the human being.”  The human capability for labour is altered in its status as a commodity and therefore, labour-power cannot be understood in Capital as transhistorical or natural potentiality. Without presupposing capitalist social relations, that is, the dual freedom of the worker and the seperation of the sphere of production from that of circulation, the status of labour-power irrevocably alters. As a specifically historical form, labour-power is not simply a potentiality which is sucked dry by vampiric capital but is rather the source of all value, the life-blood of capital, the goose that lays the golden egg in the status of a promise of the realisation of use-value. The potential for labour is obviously not something which is specific to capitalism. The use of muscles, synapses and so on is not specifically capitalist, but labour-power is. Labour-Power cannot be torn from its position as a commodity in capitalism.

Virno’s reduction of labour-power to potentiality remains within the capitalist form of labour-power as a commodity, it is simply an empty and indeterminate potentiality. The philosophical definition that Virno, linking this to Aristotle, can now be replaced with a political definition. Labour-power, seen in this light as a purely historical feature of capitalism which nevertheless points beyond itself, is the site of a constant struggle between the expectations of the seller of the commodity and those of the buyer.



2 comments on “The ambiguities of Labour-Power in Marx’s Capital

  1. Alice
    April 4, 2013

    Hi John, really enjoyed reading this.

    I’m interested in the temporal gap you point to between the presentness of the use-value of labour power and its promise of a potential ever-increasing value. Could you explain a bit more what you mean when you talk about the promise being inherently futural in that it involves an expectation of an increase in value ‘through its consumption’.

    Is it the *promise* of use-value that through its consumption creates the expectation increased value, or the actual use-value itself? Thanks

  2. Steve
    April 13, 2013

    Hi John, thanks for this, it’s very interesting. I’m convinced by your argument that labour-power is not just indeterminate potentiality but is rather a historical commodity. Could it not be both, though – which I don’t think is an option you propose? So in Negri’s terms, could it be potentia as well as potestas? It’s interesting in relation to the standard English translations of Negri’s terms that you use both labour-power and labour-Power – is this intentional? Anyway, I’m wondering whether you would think it’s useful to consider labour-power against labour-Power: I haven’t read Virno’s argument, but would this return some worth to it?

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This entry was posted on March 25, 2013 by in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , .
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